I suspect most science fiction readers who have a scientific background enjoy the sub-genre known as “hard sci-fi”. Writers of hard science fiction strive to create credible scenarios that generally adhere to physical laws. Explosions in outer space don’t go “boom” in hard science fiction.
If hard sci-fi authors portray scientists in their stories, then they follow the same scientific method of skeptical critical inquiry that their real-life analogs do. Exobiologists in hard science fiction, for example, do not attempt to pet newfound life forms that look like a cross between a penis and a king cobra and hiss menacingly. They act like scientists. Or people with basic common sense.
Many hard sci-fi authors write out of respect for the scientific quest for knowledge, and from a hunger to speculate on the future course that might take. I often wonder about the discoveries and challenges ahead of us as a species. One of my mortal sadnesses is knowing I will not see so many of these discoveries, seminal moments to be in our evolving understanding of the universe. Reading hard science fiction provides believable glimpses into possible futures.
You might have noticed that I seem to be talking about books in what is ostensibly a movie review. There is good reason for this; there have been very few hard science fiction films. Contact, Moon, Gattaca, come to mind, even 2001 until Kubrick started hitting the psychedelic crack pipe. But hard sci-fi films are scarce. Why? Well, it appears that the only way to wring enough money from hollywood producers to do a reasonable job at future world-building on screen, is to us said world as a backdrop for an entirely different genre story. Notably, action (gunplay and explosions) or horror (aka things jumping out at you and gore). I find it a shame when a director creates a rich, textured and believable future only to use it as a backdrop for improbably fight scenes and pyrotechnics.
Europa Report, a new film opening today in theaters (and available for rental on Itunes), is neither action or horror, although the trailer does not do a good job of communicating that. Shot over 19 days in a Brooklyn studio with an international cast and a modest budget, Ecuadoran director Sebastian Cordero’s first foray into science fiction was intended to provide the most realistic cinematic representation of what deep space travel might actually look like. It’s hard sci-fi.
The plot itself is rooted in the current climate of space exploration; a few years into the future, and a private corporation has launched a six-person mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter that likely has a massive ocean of liquid water under a (relatively) thin layer of ice. Many planetary scientists and exobiologists believe that Europa is the most friendly environment for extraterrestrial life in the solar system, and many are clamoring to go there.
Europa Report is billed as a thriller, though the film’s thrills come from the realistic hazards of space travel and the adrenaline rush of scientific discovery. The production team consulted heavily with NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratories and SpaceX to make sure they got the mission design and conveyance scenes believably accurate. The set design is smart and economical; the filmmakers achieved a lot on a relatively small budget. The film was shot on a single stage with 8 stationary cameras; Europa Report is told “found-footage style,” and its clear from the start that the mission did not go as planned.
Though commentator’s are praising Europa Report’s attention to detail, it’s the film’s devotion to science that is its most glowing achievement. The film is not about survival, it’s about the search for knowledge. When things go horribly wrong, the crew eschews individual survival, and even the survival of the entire mission, for a chance at making (and communicating back to earth) a scientific discovery.
One of the film’s character asks the question this way: “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life actually matter?”
Though Europa Report deals with this question in the realm of science fiction, the question is salient to the decisions we make about space travel today. Astronauts have died, and more will if we are to push past our cradle earth out into the solar system and beyond. Plenty of sensible people have been saying for a while that the most realistic way to get people to Mars is to send them on a one-way mission; they either die there or create a self-sustaining colony. Should we send volunteers out with the knowledge that they would never return?
The crew in Europa Report are willing to sacrifice their lives in the name of science. They want to make a discovery, the first confirmed extraterrestrial life in the solar system, a discovery that would have enormous implications for our understanding of the universe, the first evidence that life might be common in the universe. One of the film’s original successes is the way in which this dedication motivates the characters and drives the drama. The crew retains their basic fight or flight underpinning, but override that with logical thinking about their commitments and opportunities. It’s interesting, and you don’t see that often in “science fiction” films.
The film has one glaring flaw. The faux-documentary is presented with a mixed-up chronology designed to maximize the dramatic impact and preserve some level of surprise for the finale. This undermines the found-footage conceit and detracts from the suspension of disbelief (not of the film’s events but the of the authenticity of the documentary we are supposed to be watching). I wonder if Europa Report would have been better if presented in straight linear narrative.
Regardless, hats off to the crew of Europa Report for producing an engaging film that strives for realism all around; the science is solid and the scientists act believably.